The Isle of Blood
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“How much farther?” I asked Rimbaud.
“We are almost there.”
We rested for a moment after this final ascent, in the slice of shade beneath an archway cut into a six-foot-high stone wall that curved out of sight in either direction, a barrier that encircled the holy place of sun and rock and silent sentinel stone, high above the sea.
We sat with our backs against the cool stone, and Rimbaud wrapped his lean arms around his upraised knees and stared dreamily down into the town nestled in the blasted guts of the dead volcano.
“So what do you think?” he asked. “The best view in Aden.”
“Is that why you brought me up here, to show me the view?” I returned. I was weak from the climb, overheated and terribly thirsty. Why had I agreed to come with him? I should have stayed at the hotel.
“No, but I thought you’d like it,” he said. “You are at the entrance to the Tour du Silence, the Tower of Silence, called Dakhma by the Parsi. It is a holy place, as I told you, forbidden to outsiders.”
“Then, why did you bring me here?”
“To show it to you,” he said slowly, as if sp220;To shong to a simpleton.
“But we are outsiders.”
He stood up. “I am outside nothing.”
There were no sentries posted, no guards to man the entrance or patrol the grounds of the Dakhma. Dakhma did not belong to the living; we were the interlopers here. Our approach to the tower was noted only by the crows and kite hawks and several large white birds that glided effortlessly in the updrafts of superheated air.
“Are those eagles?” I asked.
“They are the white buzzards of Yemen,” answered Rimbaud.
The Dakhma occupied the far end of the compound, at the highest spot on the plateau. It was a simple structure—three massive seven-foot-thick concentric stone circles, with a pit dug inside the smallest, innermost ring, and all of it open to the sky.
“This is the place where the Zoroastrians bring their dead,” Rimbaud said quietly. “You cannot burn them. That would pollute the fire. You cannot bury them. That would defile the earth. The dead are nasu, unclean. So you bring them here. You lay them out on the stone, the men atop the outer circle, the women on the second, the children on the last, the one closest to the center, and you leave them to rot. And when their bones have been picked clean by the birds and bleached by the sun, you bring them to the ossuary at the bottom, until they are ground by the wind to a handful of dust. It is the Dahkmanashini, the Zoroastrian burial of the dead.”
He offered to take me inside for a look.
“There’s no one about, and the dead won’t care.”
“I don’t think I want to see them.”
“You don’t think you want to see them? Now, that is interesting to me, the way you said it, like you are not sure of your own mind.”
“I don’t want to see them.”
A sudden breeze kissed our cheeks. The stench of death could not reach where we stood; it rose from the ledges twenty feet over our heads, swept away by the same wind that kissed our cheeks and bore the white buzzards and the kite hawks and the crows. Their shadows raced across the grassless rock.
“Why is this place your favorite?” I asked him.
“Because I am a wanderer, and after going to and fro on the earth and walking up and down on it, I came to this place at last, the part after which there is nothing. I came to the end, and that is why I love this place and why I despise it. There is nothing left when you reach the center of everything, just the pit of bones inside the innermost circle. This is the center of the earth, Monsieur Will Henry, and where can a man go once he’s reached the center?”
I was certain the doctor would be waiting for us when we arrived back at the Grand Hotel De L’Univers. Certain too that he would be furious with me for taking off with the Frenchman without a word to anyone. I was angry at me for doing it and could not understnd whad. There was something about Arthur Rimbaud that brought out the irresponsible spirit, the amoral animus that says yes, when the Gypsy outside the tent urges us to “come and see.”
But the monstrumologist was not waiting for us when we got back around three that afternoon. The clerk informed Rimbaud that he had not seen Warthrop either. We retired to the same table on the terrace outside the dining room (it appeared to be his favorite roosting spot), where the poet-turned-coffee-exporter ordered another absinthe and settled in to await the doctor’s return.
“You see? You worried for nothing,” he said.
“He should be back by now,” I said.
“First you worry he will come back, and then you worry he won’t.”
“Where did he go?” I asked.
“Into town to arrange your passage to Socotra. Don’t you remember? I tried to tell him it was too soon. Bardey never gets about till five or so. He is nocturnal, like a bat. You seem nervous. What’s the matter? Is he in some kind of trouble?”
“You said it wasn’t a good part of town.”
“Because there is no good part of town, unless it’s Camp Aden or the English quarter, and then it is, well, the English quarter.”
“Should we go look for him?”
“We just got back, and I’ve just gotten my drink.”
“You don’t have to come.”
“I apologize. When you said ‘should we go look for him,’ I understood you to mean ‘should we go look for him.’ You may do whatever you like. I am going to sit here and finish my drink, and then I am going up to my room for a nap. I am tired from our hike.”
The afternoon tide came in. A pleasant sea breeze picked up. The sun slipped behind the Shamsan Mountains, and their shadows stretched over Crater and crawled toward us. Rimbaud finished his drink.
“I am going to lie down for a while,” he told me. “What will you do?”
“I’ll stay here and wait for the doctor.”
“If he still isn’t back when I get up, we will go into town to look for him.”
He left me alone on the terrace with the breeze and the advancing shadows and the ever-present faraway jingling of the tambourines. The little Arab boy came out to fetch Rimbaud’s empty glass and asked if I wanted another ginger ale. I ordered two and drank them both quickly, one right after the other, and was still thirsty afterward, as if this lifeless land had sucked every drop of moisture from my body.
Around five o’clock the door opened behind me and I turned around, expecting—knowing—it was the doctor.
Two men stepped outside. One was very large with a shock of bright red hair. His companion was much shorter and thinner and ad no hair at all. Rurick took the chair on my right; Plešec sat down on my left.
“You will not run,” Rurick said.
I nodded. I would not run.
Chapter Thirty-Two: “Give It to Will Henry”
“Where is Warthrop?” he asked.
The question eased some of my terror. It meant the doctor was still alive. How long he—and I—would stay that way was the issue. For a brief moment I wondered how they had found me, and then I decided it was a pointless speculation. The how did not matter, and the why I already knew. Would it be if or when? That was the salient point.
“I don’t know,” I answered.
Something sharp pressed against my stomach. Plešec was leaning toward me, his right hand hidden beneath the tabletop. When he smiled, I noticed that one of his front teeth was missing.
“I could gut you right here,” Plešec said. “You think I won’t?”
“You are staying at this hotel?” Rurick asked.
“I will explain rules to you now,” Rurick said patiently. “Rule one: tell truth. Rule two: speak only when spoken to. You know these rules, yes? You are child. All children know these rules.”
I nodded. “Yes, sir.”
“Good boy. Very polite boy too. I like that. Now we start again. Where is Warthrop?”
“He’s gone into town.”
“But he comes back—for you.”
“Yes. He will come back for me.”
“When does he come back?”
“I don’t know. He didn’t say.”
Rurick grunted. He looked at Plešec. Plešec nodded and put away his knife.
“We wait with you for him,” Rurick decided. “It is nice here in the shade. Nice breeze, no smell of dead fish.”
It was the best I could hope for in a nearly hopeless situation. Perhaps Rimbaud would wake up and come back downstairs. I thought about leaping from the table and hurdling the railing and chancing I could reach the quay without Rurick putting a bullet into the back of my head. I decided that chance was exceedingly slim. But if I didn’t run, if I did nothing and Rimbaud did not get up before the doctor returned, Warthrop was doomed.
Two doors. Behind one, the lady. Behind the other, the tiger. Which should he choose?
As I watched, a tern dove into the surf and emerged with a shiny fish twisting in its beak. I looked farther out and saw the edge of the world, the line between sea and sky.
It is part and parcel of the business, Will Henry. Eventually the luck runs out.
A gull shot from its sentry post on the shore, its shadow long and fleeting on the sun-burnished sand. I remembered the shadows of the carrion birds upon the bare rock at the center of the world.
There is nothing left when you reach the center of everything, just the pit of bones inside the innermost circle.
“What is it?” asked Rurick. “Why do you cry?”
“I’m not waiting for him,” I confessed. “He is waiting for me,” I lied.
This is the time of the dead. The time of the Dahkma-nashini.
In the fourteenth hour, on the second day of the week, a boy dies of cholera in his mother’s arms. Her tears are bitter; he is her only son.
His spirit hovers nearby, troubled by her tears. He calls to her, but she gives no answer.
She holds him until his body goes cold, and then she lays him down. She lays him down, for the time has come; the evil spirit approaches to take his body, and after that she will touch him no more.
The next Geh is begun. He is nasu now, unclean. It is time for the Nassesalars. It is the sixteenth hour of the second day.
“I do not understand,” said Rurick. “Why does he meet you up there?”
“That’s where he was meeting with Dr. Torrance.”
“Who is Dr. Torrance?”
“Dr. Warthrop’s friend. He’s helping us.”
“Helping you to do what?”
“Find a way to the island.”
“The island of the magnificum.”
He was struggling for breath. The way was steep; he was not used to the heat.
“For what are these pits?” he wondered aloud.
“To keep the town from flooding.”
The dry tanks were flooded with deep shadows; they appeared to have no bottom. If you fell into one, you might fall forever.
The corpse bearers take the boy and bathe him in Taro, the urine of the white bull. They dress him in a Sudreh-Kusti, the garments of the dead. Only his face is left exposed. He is nasu, unclean. The boy’s spirit watches them and does notunderstand. It does not remember that this was its body. The spirit is an infant again; it has no memory. It is now the sixth hour of the third day.